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Alaskans weigh in on Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization

Posted: February 27, 2014 - 9:27pm  |  Updated: February 27, 2014 - 9:33pm

Subsistence and recreational fishers asked for a louder voice in the fishery management process at a congressional hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Act today.

The Senate’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing on Alaska and North Pacific perspectives on the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization currently underway.

The act, or MSA, regulates management of federal fisheries from three miles to 200 miles offshore. It was implemented in 1976, and most recently updated in 2006. Now it’s up for reauthorization, with amendments likely part of the process.

The Feb. 27 hearing in Washington, D.C. was one of several held in both the House and Senate on possible changes.

Commercial representatives, the environmental sector, and fishery managers also participated in the hearing, talking about what is working — and what isn’t — from their perspectives.

Sen. Mark Begich, who chaired the hearing, offered a perspective on how the MSA is working so far, and said a Senate draft of the act is in the works.

He was careful to refer to all three sectors, not just commercial users, when talking about who relies on fisheries in Alaska. He also noted the value of recreational fisheries to coastal economies, particularly anglers targeting halibut and salmon. He also referenced the long-history of subsistence fishing.

“Managing all these fish and all the users is never easy,” he said.

As-is, the MSA largely addresses commercial fisheries management.

The House Natural Resources Committee released their draft in December.

Begich said the Senate draft could be out near the end of March, but that the committee wanted to gather as much input as possible before working on the legislation.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease was one of several fishing industry representatives to participate in the hearing. He spoke largely about the recreational sector, and what is needed in the next iteration of the MSA.

In terms of commercial management, he said, the MSA is being polished, and in terms of conservation efforts, the law is being further developed.

“I think for the recreational fisheries in this country, we’re asking to be in stage one in this reauthorization process, where we get the basic definitions, characteristics and tools in the toolbox for regulators and managers to realize the full economic and social values of these very important recreational fisheries.”

Gease detailed the major differences between commercial and recreational fisheries management. Recreational fisheries are based on angler days, and reliant on maximum sustained production, which is getting the most fish into an ecosystem, rather than maximum sustained yield, which looks at value from the fishery, Gease said. He also talked about the need to recognize the importance of stable bag limits and fisheries without in-season tweaking, and the need for more information about the economics of recreational fisheries. The value trickles through several industries, including tourism, gear sales, transportation and even real estate, Gease said.

In response to a question from Begich, Gease also said that recreational allocations have been based on historical catches, but that doesn’t account for the economic value of the sector.

Association of Village Council Presidents Director of Natural Resources Tim Andrew asked the committee to add a tribal seat to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and include the word subsistence throughout the MSA.

Andrew spoke on behalf of almost 100 tribes in Alaska, as he was also speaking for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, he said.

He also asked the committee to consider tightening up the language on reducing bycatch in the federal commercial fisheries.

Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken talked about the need to preserve and protect coastal communities when fishery management decisions are made, particularly as catch shares are developed.

Representatives and managers also addressed some of the changes proposed in the House draft.

One would reduce the information made public about bycatch in federal waters.

Mike Levine, from Oceana, talked about the importance of information availability.

“The oceans are a public resource, managed by public agencies,” Levine said. “And information collected pursuant to that management should be available to the public. “

The participants also submitted longer written testimony, and after the hearing, Begich said the committee would keep the record open for two weeks to ask for answers to additional questions.

Andrew also asked for tighter language mandating bycatch reductions.

“That language is extremely weak and it needs to be further strengthened to make the Magnuson Stevens Act more effective in the enforcement of the bycatch provisions,” Andrew said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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